Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and director at Berkshire Hathaway, smiles during a game of bridge following the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha, Neb., on May 5, 2019.

After surprising Hamilton County Schools students on the last day of the school year, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates shared his thoughts on The Howard School, Chattanooga 2.0 and the direction of education in the state.

In an interview with the Times Free Press in Nashville, Gates said it was inspiring to hear from a small panel of students at Howard on Thursday where students, many of them headed to a higher education institution next, were "frank" about the challenges they face and the successes they have had.

Gates said students discussed how colleges with high graduation rates that would provide them scholarships or take low-income kids aren't in the community, so they are having to travel far from their families to continue their schooling.

"For some kids, that's a great thing, but for a lot of these kids, in terms of not being with their family — where they support their family, their family supports them — it was a dilemma," he said. "They decided to make that leap.  "It would have been nice for them to have some high graduation rate institutions in the community, as well." 

Gates said the students also cited teacher retention and a lack of resources for all students as issues.

"They said the teachers are amazing, but then teachers will leave where they had a relationship with that teacher, so they wish that teacher turnover wasn't so high," he said. "They wish the resources weren't so constrained because they felt like sometimes the school was focused on the top 10% kids, sometimes it was focused on the bottom 90%."

Gates did say he enjoyed meeting the "energetic principal," LeAndrea Ware, who was once a student at Howard and was named the Hamilton County Principal of the Year this year.

"What a way to end the school year with Bill Gates and a Tiger Family Celebration of Learning at The Howard School! What a Day!!!" Ware tweeted after his visit.

She also tweeted a picture of a note from Gates that read, "I love your energy!"

The Gates Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Gates and wife Melinda Gates' empire, has given more than $2.7 million to education initiatives in the Chattanooga area with a large portion of that — $2.5 million — being awarded to the Public Education Fund, or PEF, according to the Gates Foundation website.

"We are really delighted that Mr. Gates took the time to visit Chattanooga and see, first hand, the progress that our students and our public schools are making," reads a Saturday email from PEF President Dan Challener. "We appreciate the support that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given to help more of our students be prepared for college and career success, thanks to more intensive advising, visits to college campuses, internships at businesses, and professional learning opportunities for educators. We hope that this important partnership continues."

In 2017, PEF received $500,000 to increase the number of students at Brainerd, East Ridge, Howard and Tyner high schools who will succeed in college and their careers, Challener said.

The funds helped increase the number of students who could go on college tours, paid for college advisers and increased the number of students who could participate in the PEF's Camp College and Step Up programs.

The Hamilton County Department of Education and Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga have received about $75,000 each.

Gates Foundation officials said it has given roughly $34 million to education programs across the state, with most of its focus on improving education in urban areas.

Now, Chattanooga is in the running for another substantial Gates Foundation grant, with officials expecting to hear whether the community has been selected later this summer.

In Chattanooga, Gates also visited the school district's apprenticeship program at Gestamp and spoke with local education and officials with Chattanooga 2.0, a coalition of business and community leaders and educators and foundation personnel with the mission of transforming education and workforce opportunities.

Gates said he is a "huge believer" in getting the private sector involved and that he was enthused by the commitment shown by business leaders in Chattanooga to improving education.

"In a small way, we are trying to help Chattanooga 2.0 be successful," he said. "We do think it's the kind of model that is hopefully successful and other communities can take a look at it."

"This was a day I know I'll remember for a long time. Congrats to (The Howard School) and (Gestamp), and all the rest who do such noteworthy work in education and talent development in our community," Molly Blankenship, interim executive director of Chattanooga 2.0, said in a tweet.

Gates even mentioned the proposed property tax increase countywide to provide $34 million in additional funding to Hamilton County Schools.

"How else do you get more resources for your school system unless the business community thinks, 'OK, this is going to pay off for us,' because they are the ones who are going to pay the property tax," he said.

Gates' visit to the state comes just a few weeks after the Gates Foundation announced the creation of a 30-member panel of leaders both inside and outside of higher education who will study the value of college degrees and post-high school certificates, the foundation states. The "Postsecondary Value Commission" will determine the worth of a degree or certificate during a time when the cost of education continues to rise.

On the same day that Gates met with state education officials in Nashville, Gov. Bill Lee signed his controversial school voucher bill into law, which gives taxpayer money to families to pay for private school or alternative school tuition and other education-related costs.

The new law over the next five years would provide about $7,300 in state and local tax dollars annually to parents of up to 15,000 students. The law excludes Hamilton County schools. The program applies to Metro Nashville and Shelby County schools, as well as the state's Achievement School District for failing public schools.

He said the Gates Foundation does not take a position on school vouchers but that part of his visit to Tennessee was to see if the new governor was going to make education a main priority. After meeting with the governor, Gates said he sees further investment in Tennessee and that it is one of the five states the foundation is focused on helping.

"Tennessee is a big focus state for us because education has been prioritized," Gates said. "I don't know what we would have done if the governor didn't have education as a priority, but he does, so we are committed to keep working here with the partners in Tennessee."

Contact staff writer Allison Shirk Collins at, @AllisonSCollins or 423-757-6651.